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Why do Americans of all religious and political stripes, traditionalist or “progressive,” conservative or liberal, tend to demonize individuals with which they disagree? Conservatives label their opponents as “evil” or “un-American,” while liberals label their opponents as “haters” or worse. Political and religious debate degenerates to emotion and name calling; rational arguments are at a minimum. I believe that the answer is found in the fact that many Americans are really Manichaens.

Manichaenism is an ancient religion begun by the Persian prophet Mani in the third century. It holds that there are opposite principles, good and evil, that are both necessary for the universe. Thus, it is a strongly dualistic religion, holding to the existence of absolute good and absolute evil. As such, Manichaenism clashed with Christianity, which holds that everything created by God is good, and even if a human being does evil things, that person is never absolutely evil.

Many of my students claim to be Christian but are really Manichaens. They say, for example, that the existence of evil is necessary in order that we may know good. This is not a Christian position; in Christianity, man could have remained wholly good, but when he sinned, part of that goodness was lost–not all of it But man did not have to sin, and evil is not a necessity in the universe.

A more dangerous version of Manichaemism in the United States is the tendency of Americans to label their moral, political, and religious opponents as “evil” without any redeeming qualities. Such polarizing views probably arose from the influence of New England Puritanism, which emphasized the separation of the redeemed from the evil world without. Today that Puritanism is secular in form, but it still polarizes people into “us” and “them,” into “wholly good” and “utterly evil.” Religious fundamentalists openly call those who disagree with their views “evil” and say that those individuals are going to a literal hell fire. Liberals who disagree with conservatives on moral issues such as abortion or practicing homosexuality will label conservatives as “haters” or “full of hate.” In this way, both liberals and conservative both dehumanize their opponents and avoid the difficult task of argumentation. It is always easier to name-call than to argue rationally for one’s position.

The idea of the 1960s radicals that “the politics is the personal” is also a byproduct of American Manichaeanism. It allows an individual to take as a personal insult any views contrary to his or her own. “I’m outraged” becomes a new mantra for individuals too lazy to argue for their position. Plus, this mantra gives someone a sense of moral superiority over opponents. Moral smugness, an arrogant sense of moral superiority, is found among people of every political and religious persuasion.

Manichaenism also encourages people to pigeonhole those who disagree with an opinion the Manichaean considers crucial. Thus, opponents of the death penalty are grouped together as “liberals” even though many hold “conservative” opinions such as opposition to abortion. I am a conservative on most issues, but some people might assume that I automatically support the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because of my conservative position on other issues. But I do oppose and always have opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and I oppose any extension of war to Iran. People are more complicated than our pigeonholes. And if people stopped demonizing their opponents and get to know them as people, they may find that they share some beliefs in common.

A final reason for Manichaenism in American life is that Americans really are deeply polarized on social issues, such as abortion and sexual ethics. Such issues cut to the core of who we are both as individuals and as members of the larger society. It is natural that they bring out strong emotions.

If someone is a Manichaen, he or she might miss out on some surprising agreements between people who are quite different from one another. Christopher Lasch was a Marxist, but many conservatives admired him. If I had read about him being a Marxist and said to myself, “I’m not going to read some atheistic communist” I would have missed out on some top-notch social critique.

People are rarely as simple as Manichaenism believes. Good people do bad things at times, and bad people do good things from time to time. We are all mixtures of good and evil. As long as we recognize that fact, we can avoid falling into Manichaeism.